Marjorie and Davis Scott are the smartest, funniest people that fourteen-year-old Janie Scott knows. Between writer's retreats in Santa Barbara, attending Hollywood High and practicing walking like Katherine Hepburn in her bright green sailor pants with four big buttons and flared legs, Janie has a pretty nice life despite the Cold War and bomb drills. But, when she notices a black sedan following her home one day, her life takes a sharp left turn. Frightened for their reputations and those of their friends and grateful to have been offered a job writing for a new television show in London, the Scotts pack a few belongings and flee the country. Once in London, Janie's life couldn't be more different. This set up alone would make for a fascinating book, but Meloy mixes Benjamin Burrows, his apothecary father and a few other characters into the mix making the story a bit more traditional in the way of a fantasy story, but still feeling new and exciting.
When a bomb drill occurs during lunchtime, Janie is taken by the boy who refuses to get under a table, telling the furious lunch lady, "But this isn't even a V-2 we're talking about. This is an atom bomb. When it comes, not even the basement shelters will save us. We'll all be incinerated, the whole city. Our flesh will burn, then we'll turn to ash." Later that day, as she is taking the train out to Riverton Studios to visit her parents, Janie catches Benjamin following her. As they talk, he tells her that he wants to be a spy and practices observing people. He invites her to play chess with him in Hyde Park on Saturday and this turns out to be for observational purposes also. Soon, Benjamin and Janie are watching Russians pass information, chasing dignitaries into hotels and trailing Benjamin's father, who seems to be passing and receiving information as well. When they get to the apothecary's shop just minutes ahead of the bad guys, Benjamin's father entrusts him with the Pharmacopoeia, an ancient text with recipes for many different kinds of transformative spells. While Benjamin and Janie hide in the darkest corner of the basement of the apothecary's shop, they hear a scuffle above and scattering when police sirens scream past. When they emerge, Mr Burrows is nowhere to be seen.
A visit to the Physic Garden (a real place in London) and an encounter with the groundskeeper help Benjamin and Janie understand the importance of the book they are guarding and the danger that Mr Burrows is in. Determined to find and help his father, Benjamin and Janie uses spells from the Pharmacopoeia to help them along. From a leaf that forces you to tell the truth, to spells that turn humans into birds, the two find themselves on the run from the Russians, the Germans, the police and their two-faced, war hero Latin teacher. Along the way they pick up Pip, an urchin with street smarts that they desperately need. They also free Jin Lo, a Chinese alchemist who has come to England to help Mr Burrows, from an underground bunker, and through her they learn that Mr Burrows, along with a few other like-minded alchemists, has been creating a spell that will cast a net of impermeability around an atomic bomb, should another one be detonated. They were planning to test their new spell on Nova Zembla, the location of the test site for the Russian's atomic bomb. One hitch after another makes it seem impossible that they alchemists, with stowaways Benjamin and Janie, will ever make it to Nova Zembla. But, bravery and alchemy win out in the end.
The book begins with Jane Scott writing a note to the reader in 2011. She explains that, while her memories of her time in London in 1952 are hazy, her diary from that year has helped her to fill in the gaps. This device is well served, as the adult Janie can add her voice to the story at times, explaining oddities of history. One of my favorite parts is when Mrs Scott asks Benjamin what his mother does. Adult Janie reminds the reader that, "because my mother worked, my parents always made a point of inquiring about other kids' mothers. Nowadays it seems a perfectly normal thing to ask, but in 1952, most kids' mothers stayed home, and the question was sometimes embarrassing." Another interesting part of the The Apothecary that struck me as something I have not seen in the breadth of middle-grade fantasy I have read in the past is the fact that the characters strip naked a couple of times in the book before subjecting themselves to an alchemical spell that will make them invisible. Janie, Benjamin and Pip never see each other undressed and they manage to clothe themselves before the spell wears off but, narrator Janie does comment on the strangeness of being naked as she walks through the winter streets of London with a boy she has a crush on. It's not sexual in any way and I only comment on it, as I said, because it's so uncommon. It does seem to add a layer of urgency and importance to what Benjamin, Janie and Pip are trying to do, as well.
I'll leave you with my favorite quote from The Apothecary:
When I think about now how much eavesdropping we did, I realize that being fourteen had prepared us for it. To be a kid is to be invisible and to listen, and to interpret things that aren't necessarily meant for you to hear - because how else do you find out about the world?
Readers who are interested in alchemy might enjoy Michael Scott's series of six books, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. (Recognize that name Potter fans??)